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Interview with Joseph Buddenberg (AETA4)
Recent interview with Joseph Buddenberg conducted by Dylan Powell of The Vegan Police (http://www.theveganpolice.com). He talks about the AETA4 case and its implications for activists
The AETA 4 case was the first large scale animal rights case that I have lived through as an activist and as such it was one that built the foundation of my interest around prisoner support and solidarity in the animal rights community. We have had numerous interviews with people in regards to the case (Peter Young, Will Potter, Dara Lovitz, etc) and I was happy to organize a fundraiser last January for the AETA 4. When Joseph agreed to an interview I was happy to keep this case at the forefront and help give some insight into one of the people involved. Please read, circulate and help support in any way you can.
Q: Back in 2009 after arrests were made the Santa Cruz Police Chief Howard Skerry immediately went on record as saying, “A lot of cases are very complex. We don’t give up on the cases. If it takes years, it takes years.” Since the Government has had such a hard stance on this case, were you surprised that a lot of people saw the ruling on July 12th as an indication of this all “being over?”
A. I want to be clear that I’m speaking for myself in answering all of these questions. I don’t know what my co-defendants are thinking, as I haven’t talked to them. But I’m not that surprised. Very few people understand the complexity of legal rulings. Unless you’ve been here, you can’t fully grasp how the legal system is set up in favor of prosecutors and the status quo.
Though the presiding judge ruled that the prosecutor violated our fifth amendment rights, as well as federal rules of criminal procedure, this is not an end. The prosecutors simply get to start over and try again if they wish. The FBI is not going to let this case go. They are press-focused and can’t afford the embarrassment of a loss at this point. This is a political case and the FBI has loved setting examples and attempting to destroy political movements since their inception. Everyone active in the animal rights movement should read up on COINTELPRO. Read Brian Glick’s “War at Home.”
I knew that it would be an uphill battle and that judges weren’t my friends at my initial hearing on February 20, 2009. I was arrested at the Alameda County courthouse by a half-dozen FBI agents, members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and UC police as I appeared at a hearing contesting a restraining order. I was taken to the San Francisco federal building and booked. I appeared before Magistrate Vadas, UC Santa Cruz graduate, and he scolded me. He yelled that the three allegations against me at that point were some of the most “chilling” accusations he’d ever seen. The allegations at that point were attendance at two demonstrations and that I somehow helped make leaflets opposing UC Santa Cruz vivisection. Keep in mind this is a federal judge and former prosecutor who has dealt with child pornographers, meth dealers, bank robbers, etc. I was placed in a halfway house at the prosecutors request and spent the next month there. Upon my release, I was on house arrest for six months.
The FBI definitely utilized the press to their advantage and sent the message that this case was a high priority. Within hours of my arrest, the FBI had formulated a very-scary sounding press release. Our pictures were on every local TV news station that night, complete with reporters talking of “attacks” and four “extremists.” FBI spokesperson Joseph Schadler made the rounds, and the Santa Cruz Sentinel had a field day.
This is not over. Last week, a federal magistrate signed a warrant ordering me to provide a DNA sample to the FBI. The FBI agent’s affidavit cites an ongoing investigation into violations of AETA, as well as conspiracy. The same laws for which I was indicted. Through the DNA sample, they hope to prove that my DNA is present on a particular megaphone seized from my co-defendant Maryam’s vehicle back in 2008. My attorneys have been told that the prosecutors will get in touch with them regarding case status by mid-September.
Q. Glenn Beck recently held a march on Washington, and like previous right wing marches on Washington (since Barack Obama’s presidency) hundreds of people in the crowd used the threat and intimidation of violence in their chant and signs. “We Came Unarmed THIS Time,” “It’s Not Time To Regroup, It’s Time to Reload,” etc. Do you think events like this help expose the irony and prejudice of the AETA ?
A. Absolutely. This is actually a tremendous outreach tool for those working to overturn designer statutes like AETA. It’s been said so many times and it’s a cliche at this point that the FBI and police agencies value the status quo and the protection of contested industries “right” to profit over life itself. You can be arrested for vicious animal abuse at a dairy farm and face misdemeanor charges, as happened in Ohio recently. And if you tried to shut the criminal farm down, you’d risk facing charges under AETA.
The law, especially when aimed at political movements, is never fair or just. It’s been this way for decades. They don’t go after right-wing terrorists who have a history of murder because they aren’t a threat to their agenda. They actively serve their agenda. This is a simple message that the public easily understands. Despite the FBI’s attempts, no one other than the animal abusers themselves believe that the non-violent animal rights movement should be more of a funding priority or that we’re more of a domestic threat than violent white supremacists, anti-abortion murderers, or child pornographers. The Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican Independence movement, Earth First!, and now the animal rights movement. We’re in good company. I believe we could learn a lot of inspiration and courage from these past and present liberation struggles. The small-scale repression aimed at a very small number of animal rights activists in the U.S., though serious, does not compare to the deceit, brutality, false imprisonment, and murder that the FBI leveled against the anti-racist and social justice struggles of the 1960’s and 70’s. Let’s keep this in perspective and keep the focus on the animals whose lives literally hang in the balance.
Q. In March 2009 Will Potter wrote a piece on the AETA 4 called “Snitch Hunts,” where he comments that he thinks those involved in the AETA 4 are not the intended targets, but instead people who have been centered out to be leveraged in hopes of gaining information. Do you think this was the intention in this case?
A. It’s a possibility. But I have my doubts. I’m not a hard person to track down, and the FBI never attempted to so much as interrogate me directly. They visited my then-partner at her workplace in the summer of 2008, more than six months before my arrest. They asked her to pass along their business cards. I spoke to an attorney, who reminded me that it was my right to not speak with them. This is your fundamental right, despite anything they tell you. Perhaps they realized I wouldn’t speak to them without some degree of force, and figured an indictment would be the extra push that was needed? Upon my arrest, I asked to speak with my attorney immediately. In any case, I have no information to provide them. And I would never speak to the FBI.
18 months later, and they’re still proceeding with this case. I don’t think this is about scaring people into cooperating. I think that the prosecutor really thinks they can get a conviction here, given the momentum of the UC vivisection campaigns and the illegal tactics used by anonymous people. This is the SHAC prosecution model. Throw together all the “scary” stuff in an attempt to influence what they hope will be a conservative jury into fearing this movement and wanting to convict the scapegoats. In the discovery we’ve received thusfar, there’s hundreds of serious allegations leveled at absolutely no one in particular. There’s threatening emails, firebombings, broken windows and other vandalism of several UC-Berkeley vivisectors’ property, harassing phone calls, etc.
In December of 2008, I was arrested on a trespassing warrant. No evidence was offered except for the word of a vivisector that the image caught on his private surveillance camera looked like me. No word mentioned of how he knew my name or who coached him. In my cell, I was visited by a UC Detective who said, “Keep it up. All the bullshit. The emails. The vandalism. It will come back to get you sooner or later.”
I believe the most clear intention of the case is the same as the SHAC case. Arrest a few public activists and hope to scare away everyone active in the campaigns and the larger fight for animal freedom. I think this has largely worked, unfortunately. It’s clear this is their agenda, given their vague indictment which offered no details. No one knows what they are to allowed to do anymore! I’ve been approached by straight-faced individuals whose activism is solely vegan outreach, in anxiety because of our case. I’ve been asked if I believe they could be prosecuted under AETA for flyering outside of Whole Foods about factory farming. People need to keep in mind that AETA and similar statutes will only be used against those that prosecutors think that a jury will want to convict. They simply could never get a conviction for most of the activism currently engaged in by the AR movement. You would have to effect a very powerful institution for the Department of Justice to spend millions of dollars prosecuting you.
Q. In July 2008 you wrote a letter to the Berkeley Daily Planet chronicling some of the intense police surveillance that was being placed on you without any charges. Did you ever get a response from City Council Members or Berkeley Police Review Commission? In hindsight, would there have been anything you would have done differently knowing that the heavy handed surveillance led up to the AETA charge in Feb 2009?
A. I never received a response from any City Council members. Upon talking to an attorney, I was advised that it would be a waste of time to file a complaint with the Police Review Commission. They very rarely, if ever, sustain allegations against police officers. This is something I call into question as small scale repression by Berkeley police continues. I think a lawsuit or similar action would be warranted in many of these recent instances.
Honestly, I don’t think I could have done anything to avert the indictment except stay at home and not go on demos. It broke my heart when I started to understand what the billions of animals experience in the animal exploitation industries. I don’t think I could have been inactive and still lived with myself knowing that primates are locked in restraint chairs and deprived of water their entire lives, or that cats have their skulls drilled open just a few miles away from my home.
Most of the allegations against me consist of my involvement in public demonstrations filmed by local police. I was working on several campaigns at the time. A lot of strange things started to happen, and I did experience misdemeanor arrests and surveillance. But I was set on the goal of impacting a powerful institution and ensure that less animals lives were taken at the hands of vivisectors. I’m sure most activists can relate to the feeling of being haunted given the severity of non-human oppression and our movement’s ineffectiveness.
Q. The response from fellow activists when they hear about the case is “what can I do to help?” What are some ways people can help support the AETA 4 right now?
A. Continue to keep the case in the public consciousness. Use the valid first amendment issues at stake to our advantage. Talk to your friends and family. Send a letter to Holder. Fund-raisers are always needed. We have many amazing attorneys working pro-bono on this case but if there’s a conviction, appeals costs will be astronomical. Continue your vital activism. Recent undercover investigation of animal abuse facilities have helped to awaken public consciousness. When people see the depravity and violence of the vivisection and other animal abuse industries, they are much less likely to support criminalizing righteous activism against these industries.
I feel like in this case so much has centered on the label of terrorism and the tactics of protest that a lot of people have lost sight of what brought activists out in protest of University of California, Berkeley. What is happening at UC Berkeley which brought people out in protest?
I feel very strongly, and my attorney agrees, that this prosecution was brought by the Department of Justice after heavy pressure from the University of California. The UC regents are politically powerful billionaires. What they want, they get. The university does not want to be exposed in any capacity.
There was a multi-faceted years long campaign taking place in Berkeley. The UC-Berkeley animal rights group BOAA pressured the city council into passing a non-binding resolution demanding an end to primate vivisection at UC Berkeley and calling for a phasing out of vivisection. In the midst of the campaign, several University of California campuses were constructing new vivisection labs. UC-Santa Cruz, UC-Irvine, and UC-Berkeley. The construction of the Li Ka-Shing Center at Berkeley continues and will lead to a 70 percent increase in vivisection facilities.
What was going on and continues to this day at UC Berkeley is unfortunately not much different than what is taking place at every major university. Michael Budkie of SAEN has done much in recent years to expose these facilities, posting all of the relevant documents and information on his website.
At UC Berkeley, it’s no different than your local university. Invasive experimentation on living animals. Confined in cages for the entirety of their lives are non-human primates, rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, wild mice, hyenas, cats, squirrels, voles, etc. UC Berkeley currently experiments on 40,000 animals. Non-human primates are brain mapped, that is deprived of water and forced to perform visual tasks while bolted down in restraint chairs. Stereotaxic devices are used on cats and birds to keep their heads in place while researchers chart their brain activity. Violent acts that would have you arrested and facing felony charges if performed outside the vivisection lab.
Q. I think it is really important that people in the community know about the people involved in these cases. What do you like to do with your spare time? What are your hobbies? As someone in the horrible situation of living through the trial run of this very repressive legislation, what advice can you give to other activists?
A. It’s important for supporters to understand that activists facing charges are just like yourself. They are not superheroes. It could be any one of us.
I think it’s important to personalize every defendant of our movement. Ditch the “vegan warrior” rhetoric and understand these are just normal people driven by compassion.
It’s still a surreal experience for me. I don’t view myself as a threat. I like to hang out with friends, hike, go on bike rides, eat good vegan food, and listen to punk rock.
Each individual will have specific support needs. The most important thing, is to not do the FBI’s work. In recent cases, I’ve seen people commenting on cases, feeding the gossip mill and taking the FBI’s allegations as truth.
The advice I would give to other activists, is to be smart. Go with your gut feeling. If someone active in your group seems suspicious, distance yourself from them. At the same time, don’t give into the fear-mongering around AETA and continue your activism. Keep things in perspective. You have very little chance of being prosecuted under this law. The animal rights movement in the U.S. currently has ten billion non-human prisoners, and about twelve humans imprisoned or facing charges. In many countries other than the U.S. and U.K., severe sentences and laws stifling activism do not yet exist. Be effective before they have the opportunity to repress you!
Every social justice movement has and will always have defendants and prisoners. For the prisoners of our movement, non-human and human, support them as you would if you were locked in a cage. The human prisoners need, for the most part, donations and lawyers. The non-human prisoners need your voice and continued action.
I won’t lie. It has been a very scary, drawn out, and traumatizing experience for me. It’s not fun to be on house arrest for days on end, knowing that it could stand to get much worse. At the most stressful points of the past couple years, it was circumstantial and had little to do with the case. I lost my mother while I was under indictment. While I was at my mother’s side in the hospital, I received several calls each day from my “federal pre-trial officer.” He was threatening to take me into custody, accusing me of being on an unauthorized trip. My partner of several years left me that same month. I tend to be a shy and private person, so it was hard for me to reach out to my community and request help and support.
The advice I would offer to those facing charges or serving time, is to stay in touch with your community. This community threw dozens of fund-raisers and covered my legal fees. Hundreds of people from this community called the facility I was being held at and demanded that I be served vegan meals. And so much more. We have an amazing support team and this is an amazing movement to be a part of. My gratitude can not be expressed. All of you give me hope that one day we will see a world free from non-human slavery.